Strasburg and Zimmermann give Nationals a glimpse of their future

By the time Stephen Strasburg arrived in the Nationals’ rotation, Jordan Zimmermann was already nine days removed from his final start of the 2011 season. The two young pitchers passed each other, like a pair of satellites whose orbits just missed lining up, and the Nationals will still have to wait almost another seven months before they pair up in the rotation.

But even in the two years they’ve spent criss-crossing each other’s paths, from youthful promise in Washington to tedious rehab in Viera, Fla., and back, Strasburg and Zimmermann have provided glimpses of the special combination they might make at the top of the Nationals’ rotation in the future.

They got another of those glimpses on Tuesday night, with Strasburg throwing five shutout innings in his first start back from Tommy John surgery. It had echoes of Zimmermann’s second start after surgery last August - albeit one stop earlier in the process - and showed the same signs of growth that turned Zimmermann into a top-end starter this year.

Both Strasburg and Zimmermann came to the majors amidst plenty of talk about their ability to strike hitters out - Strasburg’s fastball topped out at 100 mph, bringing him as much attention as any prospect in recent memory, while Zimmermann’s mid-90s heater went with a wipeout slider to overpower hitters. When Zimmermann came back last fall and this spring, he was more concerned with relying on those two pitches and spent less time mixing in his curveball and changeup, his two lesser pitches. He threw a fastball or slider 85.3 percent of the time this year, and both pitches were tremendously effective; Fangraphs rated his fastball at 10 runs above average, while his slider was 11.4 runs above average.

And last night, Strasburg also looked more focused than he was last year. He threw his four- and two-seam fastballs on 44 of his 56 pitches, saving his curveball and changeup for spots where he needed a strikeout. Those are both plus pitches for Strasburg, but they can become even more effective when hitters are primarily concerned with having to deal with his formidable fastball. And he threw that pitch in the mid-90s, ratcheting up to 98 and 99 mph when he needed something extra.

“Mike has talked to me about it,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “I’ve talked to Stephen about it a number of times. It’s not always going out there and trying to throw it 98 to 99. There’s a much easier way to pitch, when you pitch at a level with his command and still throw 95, 96, or 97. He has that sinker and that offspeed to go with it. Everything doesn’t have to be max effort.”

So fast forward to next spring: The Nationals should have both Strasburg and Zimmermann, healthy and in the early stages of their careers, still refining their craft. It has the chance to be an elite one-two punch, perhaps eventually on the level of what the Giants have in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

For now, the Nationals still have to be satisfied with glimpses. But those days are numbered.